I STEP OFF THE M/V SEA SPIRIT AND ONTO a Zodiac which speeds towards Cuverville Island, the largest Gentoo penguin rookery on the Antarctic Peninsula, home to 6,500 breeding pairs.
I expected many things travelling to Antarctica with Chimu Adventures: wildlife, glaciers and polar temperatures. But there are a few things they don’t tell you to expect: the deafening silence when you find yourself atop a mountain overlooking the Southern Ocean, camping overnight in a self-dug hole in the snow only to be awakened by a calving glacier, or the moment when you stop paddling your kayak and are overcome by the nothingness.
As we approach the rookery, I’m again taken aback by something less pleasant. Most surprising aren’t the astonishingly brash sounds penguins use to communicate, rather the revolting smell of their guano – that’s science speak for a mix of penguin feces and regurgitated krill. A better description? A mix of fermented seafood and vinegar that pierces your nasal cavities like ammonia.
At the rookery, guano is on the ground and on the penguins, especially chicks, who easily topple over into puddles of it. They track it through penguin “highways” leading from the ocean to the nesting sites, sliding headfirst on their bellies. It creates a slippery film on the rocks when mixed with rain.
I WATCH AS A PENGUIN warms her egg months after the rest have hatched, still hopeful. Another shelters a chick from a hungry predatory seabird called a skua. I lose track of time; all the passengers have returned to the ship. The guides let me take it all in while they clean up the landing site.
In Antarctica, you can’t wear your own shoes – you’re given a pair of giant, hard-to-walk-in boots with no tread. Walking back to the Zodiac, I’m startled as a skua squawks and dives towards a chick. I attempt to snap a photo when suddenly I’m flat on my back, legs in the air with the wind knocked out of my chest. My slippery misstep has me painted head-to-toe in putrid pink guano.
I need a full-body hose down, stat. Each passenger’s gear is stored in their cabin and my roommates surely won’t appreciate my reeking gear permeating our tiny space.
Back on the ship, the guides instruct me to rinse off, using a little soap to battle the funk. I beeline it for the hose, furiously watering myself down as the smell tests my gag reflex. My kayak instructor yells, “Stop!” from across the room.
Laughing it off, I announce, “I’m good, I need to get this stuff out of the fabric so our whole room doesn’t stink.”
He doesn’t smile back.
"No, seriously, you need to stop right now,” he warns. “You’re still wearing your lifejacket, remember?”
With the hose streaming water down my suit, I process his words: our lifejackets activate upon contact with water.
As if the humiliation of being covered in pink poop like a clumsy penguin chick wasn’t enough, my PFD is poised to inflate at any given moment.
Just in the nick of time, I am saved from the further embarrassment of aggressively blowing up my lifejacket – while not actually being submerged in water.
I learned that day that penguin rookeries are equally no place for quiet conversations or for sudden movements in treadless boots.